President Barack Obama speaks during an election night party, Wednesday, November 7, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A country reeling from one disaster has dodged another. While President Obama’s re-election inspires varying degrees of hope among progressives, it has evoked one common sentiment: relief. Democracy may not be reborn, but a living symbol of plutocracy was defeated by the voters on November 6.
It’s worth remembering, before Mitt Romney settles into a comfortable 1 percent retirement from politics, that his victory would have imperiled the security of all but those insulated by extreme wealth from concerns like being able to find safe, warm housing in the wake of a hurricane. A Romney/Ryan win would have been viewed as a validation of a radical individualist worldview that runs counter to every value progressives hold dear. It would have collapsed the space the left needs to gain strength, and it would have empowered social forces—from the religious right to the Tea Party voter-suppression machine to Wall Street and corporate elites—that form an intractable bloc of opposition to progress for all those struggling for equality and opportunity in today’s United States.
This right-wing coalition was defeated at the polls by a “rising American electorate,” a coalition of women, African-Americans, Latinos, the young and unionized blue-collar workers in Midwestern battleground states. These voters not only provided Obama with his margin of victory but carried several stalwart progressives in high-profile Senate races to exhilarating wins: Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law School professor who emerged as a champion in the fight to regulate the financial sector, took Scott Brown’s seat despite a furious effort by Wall Streeters to stop her; Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, who despite a deluge of negative Super PAC ads, costing upward of $31 million, overcame his Republican rival with his populist labor-based campaign; and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, who prevented a vulnerable Democratic seat from being snatched by former Governor Tommy Thompson and will become the first out gay or lesbian to serve in the Senate, where she will join the ranks of a record number of women senators. Thank you, voters, for that fitting response to the Republican war on women.
As a result of outcomes like these, the new Democratic majority in the Senate is not only slightly larger but decidedly more progressive than the one it will replace. Some of the Democratic victories resulted from the missteps of right-wing Republicans: Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill was surely aided by Republican Todd Akin’s infamous “legitimate rape” comment, as Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly was buoyed (despite his own anti-choice stance) by the outrageous remarks of Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock. But other winners, such as Connecticut’s Chris Murphy and Virginia’s Tim Kaine, simply won hard-fought races against enormously well-funded Republicans.
The Senate’s newly invigorated progressive caucus provides majority leader Harry Reid with an opening to respond to pressure for reform of Senate rules, ending filibuster abuses and making the Democratic majority a functional force that can hold its own in negotiations—over everything from Social Security’s future to ending the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich—with a House that will remain in Republican hands. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi will have a harder time of it, but she has a fighting caucus, strengthened by the additions of newcomers like Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan, New Hampshire’s Ann McLane Kuster and Florida’s Alan Grayson. Democrats would do well to take a cue from Grayson, who lost his seat by eighteen points in 2010 but stormed back in 2012 with a promise to serve as “a congressman who’s going to fight for full employment, a congressman who’s going to fight for universal healthcare, a congressman who will protect Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, a congressman who will fight for health benefits and paid sick leave and paid vacations and the things that we need to be decent human beings in our lives, a congressman who will fight for progressive taxation and make sure that even the filthy rich have to pay their fair share, a congressman who will fight for clean money and clean elections…. a congressman who will fight for justice, equality and peace.”